Thick-bearded Haji Mohammed Naim looked like he belonged a world away when he walked into a Joint Base Lewis-McChord courtroom Tuesday to testify against the soldier who nearly killed him and his son in a Kandahar province massacre last year.
He fumed as he looked at his attacker, Lewis-McChord’s Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. Naim, 60, took a bullet in the neck from Bales. His son got one in the ear.
“You bastard,” Naim said, looking at Bales, when prosecutors asked what he thought as he saw an American soldier approach him in his home in the dead of night in March 2012.
“What did I do? What have I done to you that you come to me and shoot me?” Naim asked, gesturing toward the soldier.
Naim’s testimony, made possible by his 7,000-mile journey from Kandahar province to the base south of Tacoma, was part of an extraordinary day in the sentencing of the soldier who slaughtered 16 Afghan civilians and wounded six more in a solitary killing spree at his combat outpost last year.
Six Afghans followed Naim to the witness stand. Each wore traditional Afghan clothing, and each testified to devastating injuries they suffered or described the ruined lives of loved ones who survived the slaughter.
“The house was full of blood and bodies,” said Faizullah, 30, one of Naim’s sons. Faizullah was not shot. He helped get five wounded villagers to a nearby NATO base for medical attention.
The testimony came on the first day of a sentencing trial for Bales, 39. The married father of two avoided a possible death penalty by pleading guilty in June to murder. His defense team is trying to earn him a chance at parole from the mandatory life sentence that murder carries under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
So far, the defense has not been able to present any of its arguments before the six senior soldiers who will decide Bales’ fate as the members of his sentencing panel. Bales’ attorneys have suggested Bales “snapped” while coping with past combat trauma from his three previous deployments to Iraq and the stress he felt while serving with undisciplined Special Forces soldiers in a deadly part of Kandahar province.
Prosecutors opened the trial by revealing their fullest — and most graphic — public description yet of the killings since the Army apprehended Bales as he returned to his combat outpost in blood-soaked clothing on the morning of March 11, 2012.
The Army’s presentation came directly from a 32-page stipulation of fact Bales endorsed in June when he pleaded guilty to the massacre.
The document, read in a monotone voice by lead prosecutor Lt. Col. Jay Morse, presented Bales as troubled by his failure to earn a promotion, drowning in debt and irritated by his family. It says he quit paying the mortgage on an Auburn home that was $60,000 underwater. Another home he owned in Lake Tapps was worth $100,000 less than he owed on it.
“The whole truth is I don’t think I can dig my way out of this mess,” Bales wrote in an email to a financial adviser that was excerpted in the document Morse read.
Bales also apparently vented about his family to whomever would listen, complaining about his wife’s appearance and his kids’ behavior.
“The accused felt inadequate as a soldier and as a man because of his personal, financial and professional problems,” Morse read.
On the night of the killings, Morse said Bales stewed on his troubles at home and his disappointment in the Special Forces unit his Lewis-McChord team supported in southern Afghanistan. He wanted to be more aggressive, Morse said. He also was taking steroids and drinking alcohol in his down time.
Against that backdrop, Bales twice sneaked out of his outpost to murder civilians in the villages of Alkozai and Najiban in a single night. He put his pistol in the mouth of a baby, and shot men, women and children in front of their families.
As Morse described those killings, jurors saw gory photos of Bales’ youngest victims on a wall-sized screen. One image showed the corpse of a 3-year-old girl.
Bales appeared to shrink from viewing the photos. He closed his eyes and glanced to the side when prosecutors presented images showing the bloodied head of a young girl, Zardana, he shot inside her home. She survived with the help of Army doctors.
Several of the young Afghan boys who testified spoke shyly about the nightmares they and their siblings still experience 17 months after the slaughter.
“I am always fearful,” said 5-year-old Khan. Bales murdered his father, Mohammed Dawud. “What did I do wrong against Sgt. Bales that he shot my father?”
Naim cried when Morse asked him how he felt knowing someone had shot his son, Sadiqullah, who also testified Tuesday.
“For God’s sake, don’t ask me any more questions,” Naim told the prosecutor.
The only evidence presented Tuesday that could have been construed as sympathetic to Bales’ case came in the form of a conversation between him and his wife that the Army recorded during his confinement.
In it, Bales says he loves his wife, Kari, and wants her and their two children to have a happy future. He playfully jokes with his young son and encourages Kari to look past some of the public criticism they were receiving after the Army revealed its charges against him.
But even that recording doesn’t entirely help Bales. The couple briefly laugh as they try to decipher the Army’s case and realize that the government had dropped one of the original murder charges it filed against Bales. He initially faced 17 counts of murder.
“At least they dropped one count of murder,” Bales said, laughing.Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com